La. DA uses program to fund his foundation - Part 11

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This is part 11 in a multi-part series about questionable behavior in Calcasieu Parish, reprinted from The Washington Post. The L.A.C.E. program is statewide and has been criticized and found to have many issues all across the state.

A Louisiana DA will let you out of your community service obligation — if you donate to his nonprofit

John DeRosier sent fines and fees collected from defendants to his foundation

Unequal justice

Pretrial diversion programs are commonly touted as part of a criminal-justice reform agenda, and on its face, the idea seems sound. But as is often the case with reform, the devil can be in the details. Diversion programs vary widely across the country, within states and sometimes even within the same jurisdiction. In some places, diversion programs are free. In others, they can cost thousands of dollars. In many places, enrolling in a diversion program means forfeiting your right to a trial — if you can’t make the payments, you’re automatically convicted of the original crime.

Louisiana isn’t the only place where prosecutors have been accused of using diversion to swell office coffers. A recent lawsuit alleges that the office of Maricopa County, Ariz., DA Bill Montgomery generated $15 million in revenue over six years by sending diversion participants to a drug rehab clinic that charged patients $1,000, then sent $650 back to Montgomery’s office. Personal enrichment also isn’t an uncommon allegation. A 2016 investigation of diversion programs by the New York Times and ProPublica found several prosecutors accused of using diversion funds on themselves. The proliferation of diversion programs has also given rise to a cottage industry — for-profit diversion programs run by private companies.

More than 25 years ago, the Louisiana attorney general wrote an opinion stating that DAs could collect fees from diversion programs, but they could charge a participant only what it cost to put him or her through the program. Any other use of the fees, the opinion stated, “would be payments for the dismissals of prosecutions,” and that, of course, would be illegal.

Louisiana prosecutors have largely ignored that opinion. Because diversion programs tend to be run entirely by DA’s offices with no oversight from the courts or outside agencies, there have been myriad problems with accounting, transparency and allegations of grift. In July, Politico published an extensive report on how DAs across the state have gained millions in revenue from diversion — typically at the expense of the courts, police departments and public defenders. In 2016, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor attempted to publish an assessment of the finances of DA’s offices. Instead, the report concluded such an assessment was nearly impossible because so many offices had been inadequate in reporting revenue.

DeRosier’s gift card/money order option takes all of this a step further. He not only substitutes court fees that fund various agencies with an enrollment fee that goes to his office, but he expands his office’s revenues by allowing defendants to buy out community service. With misdemeanor probation, Louisiana judges will sometimes waive court fees for poorer defendants and substitute community service. By letting those same defendants then buy out that community service, DeRosier secures even more funds for the D.A.’s office and its foundation.

One former prosecutor in Calcasieu Parish believes there’s a big incentive problem at play here. “Not every crime deserves community service,” he says. “But when your personal foundation benefits financially from community service, there’s a strong incentive to require it when it isn’t necessary.”

Some former staffers also argue that the program benefits wealthier defendants who can afford to buy out their community service. DeRosier disputes this. “You’d be surprised,” he says. “That’s probably totally inaccurate ... It’s not a whole lot of money.”

Since I started looking into the gift-card program, Carla Sigler has resigned from the board of DeRosier’s nonprofit. She was the attorney who filed the foundation’s articles of incorporation for DeRosier. “I was recently informed by credible sources that there is and has been internal theft of the gift cards, toys, and money collected for and by the District Attorney Community Assistance Foundation,” she writes in an email. “Shortly thereafter, I resigned as agent for service of process for the foundation, and as its secretary.” Sigler had already resigned from her position as an ADA in the office.

A week after I made my document request, the public records custodian either resigned or was removed from that position. A couple of weeks later, Russ Haman gave notice of his resignation as DeRosier’s office manager. Haman is also director of the nonprofit; it isn’t clear whether he resigned from that position as well.

The gift cards that Kenneth bought for the DA’s office in lieu of community service ended up in some odd places. In November 2014, four months after he purchased them, the three $200 cards he bought were redeemed at the Walmart in Sulphur, a town in Calcasieu Parish. But whoever redeemed them didn’t spend them. Instead, the three $200 cards were exchanged for six $100 cards. Two of those cards were then used two weeks later at a Walmart in The Woodlands, Tex., 143 miles away. Another was used in West Orange, Tex., 28 miles away. The other three were used in Lake Charles and Sulphur.

More interesting is what happened to the $40 card. More than four years after it was purchased, the card was used in the small town of Eunice, La. Whoever used it bought, among other things, denture cream, two knives, over-the-counter heartburn medication, rice, vanilla wafers, bread, coffee products and K-Y lubricant.

Regardless of who used the card, that doesn’t seem like a shopping list consistent with the stated purpose of the program. When I told Kenneth how the cards he bought had been used, he was upset. “I mean, damn. They told me it was going to go for something like Toys for Tots,” he says. “You know, bicycles for kids and stuff. Now you tell me some son of a b---h used my money to buy knives and cookies and K-Y? That’s some real bulls--t right there. If I had known that, I would have picked up trash instead.”

Radley Balko blogs and reports on criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He was previously a senior writer and investigative reporter at the Huffington Post, and a reporter and senior editor for Reason magazine.